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Nature and Power

A Global History of the Environment

by Joachim Radkau

Translated by Thomas Dunlap, German Historical Institute, Cambridge University Press, 2008, 430 pp.

Nature and Power describes how humans have been grappling with environmental problems since prehistoric times. The book shows that the measures societies and states have adopted to stabilize the relationship between humans and the natural world have repeatedly contributed to environmental crises. Efforts to steer human use of nature and natural resources are complicated by particularities of culture and by the vagaries of human nature itself. Environmental history, the author argues, is ultimately the history of human hopes and fears.

Praise for Nature and Power

"Joachim Radkau's Nature and Power offers the best overview of world environmental history available in the English language. Radkau has an independent cast of mind and an uncanny ability to focus on the "hot" topics in the global environmental field. His perspective is always fresh and insightful, even when he is taking the reader down well-trodden paths." —Mark Cioc, University of California, Santa Cruz

"Americans may have invented the field of environmental history, but today some of the most ambitious work is coming from outside of the country, offering provocative new approaches and perspectives. Joachim Radkau joins that international band of innovative historians with this extraordinary work of global synthesis. It is bold, opinionated, and important."—Donald Worster, University of Kansas

Co-winner of the 2009 World History Association Book Award

Quotes from Nature and Power

From the Preface to the German Edition

Some time after my fiftieth birthday, I came across a reference in an article on the history of forestry in India to an ancient Indian ideal of the human life cycle. According to this idea, it behooves a person at the age of fifty to venture into the forest in search of the truth. That idea appealed to me, since the history of the forest has long been one of my favorite topics. But what is the historical wisdom with which one returns from the forest? It is surely not as thunderous as that of the prophets who come from the desert: instead, it is quiet, restrained, occasionally muted, like light falling through the leaves. An environmental historian who has absolute certainty about what he does need not go into the forest at all. . . .

From the Book

Today, we are confronted in many parts of the world with the destructive consequences of rampant free market selfishness. Yet this situation should not blind us to the fact that, many times throughout history, a secure law of ownership and inheritance probably promoted the protection of the soil and the fruit trees growing in it. Two conservationists, after analyzing conditions in sourtheast Asia, concluded that the problem of the environment was basically quite simple: wherever the local population does not have control over its resources and is unable to keep outsiders away, the environment degrades. . . .

Environmental history is invariably shaped also by the formation of ever larger political and even more expansive economic entities, and by the growing interconnectedness of the world. The geographic dimension of certain problems increases, and the competency to deal with them is claimed by higher political levels: territories, nation-states, and supranational institutions. Environmental knowledge, too, becomes more exclusive, turning into a matter for science and bureaucratic experts. This process has causes that are inherent in the phenomenon itself, but it is also driven by the power interests of the state and the professional politics of the experts.

The steady stream of forestry regulations that began to flow especially from the sixteenth century on served the growth and expansion of the early modern territorial state, and in its wake also of forest administration and the science of forest management. That is not to say that the impending shortage of wood which was used to justify the forest regulations, did not exist at all: however, one must not assume that these decrees were always a direct and appropriate reaction to actual changes for the worse in the forests. The situation is much the same with many of the agricultural reforms that were pushed from the top and justified with reference to the dismal state of agriculture: in reality they were motivated by a quest to secure a greater income fro the state or manorial lords, and in the end they actually increased the danger that some resources would be overexploited. There is reason to believe that this holds true also for the irrigation culture of the ancient Near East, for the agrarian reforms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more recently for the "Green Revolution."

Historians, who are fascinated by long-distance trade, have often overlooked that, until very recently, humanity's food supply was largely dependent on local and regional subsistence, and that an effective response to environmental problems was most likely to occur at those levels—if at all. Fertilizing fields, maintaining terraces, desilting the many small irrigation canals, and caring for fruit trees—these tasks could not be organized centrally, but were a matter for villages and households. That is why the shift of important aspects of environmental preservation to higher levels raises some concerns. It is possible that the supposed management of the problems misses the real problems and ends up creating new ones.

Table of Contents of Nature and Power

Preface to the German Edition
Preface to the English Edition
1  Thinking about Environmental History
1. Blinders and Dead Ends in Environmental History
2. The Sameness of Vicious Circles and the Complex Ways of Escaping Them
3. In the Depth of Time, and the Mysterious Regenerative Power of the Nature Idea
4. Trees or Sheep? The Problem of Value Judgments in Environmental History
5. Ecology as Historical Explanation: From the Collapse of Mayan Culture to the Great Irish Famine
6. Terra Incognita: Environmental History as Secret History or the History of the Obvious?
2  The Ecology of Subsistence and Tacit Knowledge: Primeval Symbioses of Humans and Nature
1. In the Beginning Was Fire: Global Slash-and-Burn Agriculture and Pyromania in Environmental History
2. Humans and Animals: Hunting and Domestication
3. Gardens and Fruit Trees
4. Farmers and Herders
5. The “Tragedy of the Commons” and the Plaggen Plague: Was Premodern Agriculture “Unconscious Plunder”?
6. Mother Earth and the Father in Heaven: On the Ecology of Religion
3  Water, Forests, and Power
1. Hydraulic Engineering, Power, and Ecological Chain Reactions
2. Egypt and Mesopotamia: An Archetypal Contrast
3. The Irrigated Terrace: A Socioecological Cell Culture
4. China as a Model and a Terrifying Vision
5. Water Civilizations within Constrained Spaces: Venice and the Netherlands
6. Malaria, Irrigation, Deforestation: Endemic Disease as Nature’s Avenger and the Protector of Ecological Reserves
7. Deforestation and “Ecological Suicide” in the Mediterranean Region: A Fictitious Problem? Erosion in Harmony with Nature and Misleading Historicization
8. Forest and Power in Europe: From the Forest-Clearance Movement to the Era of Forest Regulations
9. Focal Points of an Early Consciousness of Crisis: Cities and Mining
4  Colonialism as a Watershed in Environmental History
1. The Mongol Empire and the “Microbial Unification of the World”
2. Ecological Dynamics in Overseas Colonialization
3. The Birth of the Global Perspective: Colonial and Insular Origins of Modern Environmental Awareness
4. Colonial and Postcolonial Turning Points in India’s Environmental History
5. Yankee and Mushik Ecology
6. The Question of European Exceptionalism in Environmental History: The Effect of Colonialism on the Colonial Powers
5  At the Limits of Nature
1. Toward the Last Reserves
2. “Wo Mistus, da Christus” (Where there is dung, there is Christ): From the Fallow to the “Cult of Dung” and the Politicization of Agriculture
3. Alarm over Wood Scarcity, the Afforestation Movement, and the Rise of an Ecological Forest Apologetics
4. “Sweet, Holy Nature”: The Ambiguous Development of the Modern Religion of Nature
5. Nature and Nation: Making Concrete the Nature in Need of Protection
6. The First Industrial Environmental Crisis and the Genesis of Basic Patterns of Modern Crisis Management
6  In the Labyrinth of Globalization
1. The Deepest Rupture in the History of the Environment: The Failed Americanization of the World
2. Blood and Soil: Self-Sufficiency Gone Mad
3. Substrata of Environmental Concerns: The Nuclear Apocalypse and Cancer Fears
4. Scientific, Spiritual, and Economic Origins of the Environmental Movement
5. Nepal, Bhutan, and Other Summit Perspectives: Environmental Problems in Tourism, Development Aid, and Space Flight
6. The Problems of Power and Uncertainty in Environmental Policy
Epilogue: How to Argue with Environmental History in Politics

About Joachim Radkau

Joachim Radkau is Professor of History at Universität Bielefeld in Germany. His books include Die deutsche Emigration in den USA, 1933–1945 (1971), Deutsche Industrie und Politik von Bismarck bis zur Gegenwart (in collaboration with George W. F. Hallgarten, 1974), Aufstieg und Krise der deutschen Atomwirtschaft (1983), Holz: Ein Naturstoff in der Technikgeschichte (in collaboration with Ingrid Schäfer, 1987), Das Zeitalter der Nervosität: Deutschland zwischen Bismarck und Hitler (1998), and the biography of Max Weber, Die Leidenschaft des Denkens (2005).

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